Mario Tobar

mario-tobar_forwebMario Tobar was in his freshman year of high school when his mother, Kenia Palacios, confronted him about his choices and path in life.

Mario had started hanging out with the wrong crowd, Kenia said. And he wasn’t making good grades at his neighborhood school, and he refused to do his classwork. Then came the arguments with his teachers. Back at home, the family was going through a turbulent period, too. Kenia had divorced Mario’s father and began working two jobs.

Then the family faced another difficult situation. In March 2012, someone broke into their home in Winter Garden and stole Mario’s videogame system. Another break-in followed that same week, and this time, the intruders took several of the family’s belongings, including TVs, laptops, computers and all of Mario’s video games. Kenia and Mario suspect the culprits were people he knew.

“I took it as a big blow,” Mario said. “I kind of screwed up.”

Kenia, the mother of three, said she told Mario she didn’t want him to become like some of the people he was hanging out with.

“I don’t want you to be like that,” she remembers telling Mario. “I want you to be someone good.”

Kenia knew she had to do something to change Mario’s life. She quit one of her jobs so she could be home more to make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd, she said.

She turned to the Step Up For Students Scholarship and applied for Mario. In 10th grade, he enrolled at Bishop Moore Catholic High School, a private school in Orlando, with the help of a scholarship for the 2012-13 school year. Mario has loved playing football since he was in middle school and his mother told him he would have the opportunity to play at his new school.

Still, his career at Bishop Moore started out rough. He had been a B-C student in his neighborhood school and was placed on academic probation after enrolling in Bishop Moore.

“Mario came to Bishop Moore with little understanding of how intelligent and capable he truly is,” Mario’s guidance counselor, Eric Hennes, wrote in an e-mail. “His lack of motivation and minimal appreciation for a good education contributed to a high degree of apathy.”

Mario’s academic-watch contract required him to have meetings with his guidance counselor throughout the year. They talked about everything from grades to family life and goals. His behavior began to improve. Mario’s teachers and guidance counselor were then able to see his potential and push him academically, Hennes said.

“Not only did he start realizing his potential, but his grades improved … so much so that it was almost a point and one-half (increase in GPA),” Hennes said. “Difficult to achieve for any student.”

Mario said he also benefited from having a new set of classmates. There are a lot of good students at Bishop Moore, Mario said, and they positively affected him academically.

Kenia agrees. “They’re much better influences on my son’s life,” she said.

Kenia said she’s proud of her son and that he wants to go college. She said the staff at Bishop Moore cares about students there. She is kept updated on Mario’s experience.

“They believe in the kids,” she said

Kenia is applying for a Step Up scholarship for her youngest daughter Gabriella to attend St. Charles School, right next to Bishop Moore. Gabriella, who is entering the sixth grade, had been a Step Up scholar in kindergarten and first grade, but had stopped receiving the scholarship due to changes in the family’s financial situation.

As for Mario, he has two professional goals: He wants to play football and he wants to be an engineer. Now in his junior year, he said he has a 4.0 GPA. He loves math because he’s good at it. He played defensive tackle on Bishop Moore’s football team. He is interested in attending University of Central Florida, University of Florida, University of Miami, Florida International University or the University of Notre Dame.

“Bishop Moore really changed me,” Mario said. “Bishop Moore would be a perfect place for anyone to restart your life.”

Hennes, found Mario’s changes remarkable. “Mario is now a Bishop Moore athlete who knows how to balance grades and sports, excelling in both. He is mature, responsible, accountable, serious about his future and goal-oriented. Of my eight years as a school guidance counselor, I have never seen such turn-around and maturation in one student.”

About Bishop Moore Catholic High School

Bishop Moore is a private Catholic school in Orlando and has been in operation for more than 60 years. It currently has 1,140 students, 33 of whom are Step Up scholars. It earned accreditation from AdvancED. The school offers college prep courses, and 99 percent of students enter college. It offers more than 50 clubs and activities, 50 sports teams and a campus ministry. Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $13,380. The school uses the PSAT to measure annual academic gains.

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